- Dystopian investment fiction: what nightmares is Vanguard leading us into? [for those not subjected to financial news: people are increasingly giving up on sharp-suited stock-pickers, and instead just buying a bit of everything. This has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth among said sharp-suited stock-pickers, many of whom are about to lose their meal ticket]
- A browser game relying on knowlege of vim, the cryptic text editor with a hardcore cult following among programmers
- Of many articles I’ve read about Leonard Cohen, this one gets closest to my feeligs about him
- And in processed sugar, Buzzfeed collects some actually-funny tweets.
Last week I finally grokked a little of what performance art can do, having been left cold by most of my previous encounters with it. I’d gone to the Faith and Terror festival almost by accident, and was pleasantly surprised by how much it touched me.
On the Faith side of things, Sara Zaltash spent perhaps an hour repeating a modified call to prayer. Modified partly in being sung by a woman, but also by entirely removing Mohammed. Is this a personal preference, an attempt at non-sectarian prayer, or part of some tradition I don’t know of? Zaltash’s multilingual translation and commentary doesn’t explicitly explain.
At first her fervour and the beauty of her voice held the room rapt. Then as time passed people mentally disengaged, fidgeted, left the room. At first, I counted it as the unfortunate side-effect of a long performance after a long evening after a long festival.
But then: repetition to the point of irritation is one of the basic, near-essential, building blocks of religion. When I lived in Bosnia the call to prayer was a soothing piece of background, semi-consciously absorbed through its identical presence every day. In my time at a Christian school I was constantly frustrated by the repetitive pattern of hymn and prayer. Yet, like it or not, the prayers are permanently burned into my brain. Repetition works. More than that: it’s obvious from inside any religion, but rarely experienced from the outside. So it’s a perfect thing to bring to a festival about faith.
As for terror: Openspace Performunion gave us a quasi-military march around the theme Every Flag is a Border, and Borders Kill.
It could have been menacing, but wasn’t — and in its way, the lack of menace was more unsettling. We see the soldiers stop for a smoking break — regulated, but gentle. We see them strip and dress and carefully paint each other’s faces. We see them each briefly break away from the group — always alone, as though if two got away together they might never come back. Unnervingly, it’s a platoon you could imagine wanting to join.
The flags are another matter. White they may be, but certainly ont peaceful. They mutate from flag to weapon to phallus to baton to fence and back to flag, but never stop being the enemy of the piece.
With Ritournelle, Anais Héraud and Till Baumann managed to nudge me from peace to nightmare and back again. Sheets of paper flutter through the air, telling us to inhale and exhale. In the back a plastic pole circles horizontally on what looks like a modified record player, while a metronome ticks in the front. Ticking, circling, breathing — the three rhythms don’t align, but they lull me into a meditative peace. Then, slowly, the logic becomes darker, Héraud loses herself in the repetition of a phrase, pulling other words out of it as anagrams. It’s not quite terror, but it does have something of the inescapable self-reference of a dream.
Why did I like all this so much? Partly through encountering it after a while without seeing any performance art, so that even the clichés seemed fresh.
Mostly, though, because of the relationship between the artists and the audience. This was a small and close-knit group, many performers themselves. They skipped past the two usual, frustrating reactions to contemporary art — either unthinking dismissal, or blind acceptance of anything the artist presents. Instead there was healthy, informed criticism, which seemed to get us a lot closer to understanding and communication.
Which language is used more online, Italian or Chinese? According to this survey, Italian is present on 2.2% of websites, vs. ‘Chinese’ on 2.0%.
The overall pattern is so surprisingly old-world that I’m not sure whether to believe it. The top languages, and the percentage of websites they are found on, are:
- English: 52.7%
- Russian: 6.4%
- Japanese: 5.6%
- German: 5.5%
- French: 4.0%
Chinese comes in at 9%, while Hindi (at <0.1%) is less popular online than Serbian or Estonian.
Peter Thiel and friends are supposedly planning a seasteading project off French polynesia.
This idea, I suspect, will never die among a certain libertarian geek contingent, especially those with a national ideology of the frontier and the new world. Besides, you can trace it back to both Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, which is the cyberpunk equivalent of finding it scribbled down by Da Vinci. So what if prior experiments (Sealand) have down in entertaining flames, all the more reason to keep trying.
But the techno-utopians seem to miss another model for settlement: the company town. This despite its starring role in Snow Crash (‘burbclaves’), and the trend for the stacks’ “campuses” to become deliberately enclosed ecoonmies.
You want to create a tech-friendly community far from goverment interference? A place where the wild fiber flows, and the streets are paved with Pokemon? Why not take over an old mining town? The company shop and the semi-benevolent paternalism would be entirely familiar to googlers and the like. The churches could be repurposed for TED talks and yoga classes, and there must be a few sysadmins ready to embrace a troglodyte existence in the mine shafts.
Mainly, you get to keep your workers isolated and inward-looking, dependent on their work psychologically as well as financially.
What do you think? Can we propose this to some south Welsh community? Or maybe even to Centralia — just cosider living on a fume-billowing hellmouth to be a feature, not a bug
Some more quick links:
Brett Scott points out that ‘Cashless society’ is a euphemism for the “ask-your-banks-for-permission-to-pay society”.
The millennial whoop, the wah-oh-wah-oh sound that has become ubiquitous in the charts. If TV Tropes had a music section, this would take pride of place.
Rhizomatica: a project to build community cellphone infrastructure in places where commercial providers fear to tread.
Friedrich is getting some much-deserved Reddit love for Dataset, his python library providing “databases for lazy people“. The idea is to allow you to build an SQL table from Python, with columns being auto-created as needed. It gives you all the power of SQL for free, without having to think about your data until you’ve got it in place.
It’s one of my favourite tools in the under-appreciated world of “small data”. I use it for exploratory data analysis, small scripts, and proof-of-concept applications. Most of the time I’m dealing with no more than a few million records, so I don’t need to think about optimizations. But I like the power and simplicity of SQL, and I’d much rather have my data in postgres than mongodb. Not least because I know that if I ever need to improve performance, I can easily add a few indexes and change some column types, and I’ll near-immediately be at a decently-performing database for most applications.
An essay on the history of the chair finds devices on the borderline between deportment and torture:
During the nineteenth century, when primary education became obligatory and children spent more and more time sitting in the classroom, researchers proposed a variety of chair-desk combinations intended to improve posture. Some of the designs included seat belts, forehead restraints, and face rests, although it is hard to imagine that such Draconian devices were ever actually used.
And possibly the most hipster form of addiction: getting hooked on opium as a side-effect of collecting antique opium pipes:
I had this bright idea—bright at the time, I thought. I said to him, “Well, you’ve got this high-quality opium for smoking, the type that isn’t even being produced anymore. You’re the only one that’s got it, and I’ve got all this great, old paraphernalia, some of it in pristine condition.” So I asked him if he’d be interested in combining the two.
I had a conversation earlier about Situationism earlier. I tried and failed to explain why Situationist ideas still get me high. They weren’t unique in theorizing a post-scarcity society. That was common at the end of the Trente Glorieuses. It seemed that the economy was on an ever-upward trajectory, and we hadn’t yet reached the society-wide application of Parkinson’s law, as increasingly obscure work expanded to fill the labour power available.
It’s the situationists, though, who will always stand out for me in their fervid, semi-coherent optimism. Also because their ideas resemble those bubbling through the collective unconscious of the most delightfully fun communities I’ve encountered.
So at the risk of posting Yet.Another.Manifesto, here’s a call to creativity:
Against the spectacle, the realized situationist culture introduces total participation.
Against preserved art, it is the organization of the directly lived moment.
Against unilateral art, situationist culture will be an art of dialogue, an art of interaction.
At a higher stage, everyone will become an artist, i.e., inseparably a producer-consumer of total culture creation, which will help the rapid dissolution of the linear criteria of novelty. Everyone will be a situationist so to speak, with a multidimensional inflation of tendencies, experiences, or radically different “schools” — not successively, but simultaneously.
If anybody is groping towards a manifesto for their life, you could do much worse that dedicating yourself towards becoming a total participant in the organization of the directly lived moment
I’m reading with delight Geoff Manaugh‘s Burglar’s Guide to the City.
It’s a trek through urban design and crime, based on the conceit of burglary as a form of architectural criticism. So you have criminals like “Roofman”, who broke through the identical roofs of identical McDonalds franchises, relying on their identical layouts and shift patterns to empty the cash registers and go. Or George Leonidas Leslie, the 19th-century architect turned criminal mastermind — who would build replicas of bank vaults, then train his team to rob them against a stopwatch.
Or my favourite: the gloriously nerdy Jack Dakswin, champion of the fire code:
A retired burglar based in Toronto, Dakswin amazed me with tales of his extensive, homeschooled expertise in the city’s fire code, explaining how the city’s own regulations can be read from the outside-in by astute burglars, turning Toronto’s fire code into a kind of targeting system. Simply by looking at the regulated placement of fire escapes on the sides of residential high-rises, Dakswin could deduce which floors had fewer apartments (fewer would mean larger, more expensive apartments, more likely to be filled with luxury goods) and even where, on each floor, you might expect to find elevator shafts and apartment entrances. He could thus build up a surprisingly accurate mental map of a building’s interior simply by looking at its fire escapes, a virtuoso act of anticipatory architectural interpretation that most architects today would be hard-pressed to replicate.
The futurists had all the best manifestos.
Here’s an entrancingly over-the-top Ukrainian anarcho-futurist manifesto from 1919:
The Children of Nature springing from the black soil kindle the passions of naked, lustful, bodies. They press them all in one spawning, pregnant cup! The skin is inflamed by hot, insatiable, gnawing caresses. Teeth sink with hatred into warm succulent lovers’ flesh! Wide, staring eyes follow the pregnant, burning dance of lust! Everything is strange, uninhibited, elemental. Convulsions – flesh – life – death – everything! Everything!
Such is the poetry of our love! Powerful, immortal, and terrible are we in our love! The north wind rages in the heads of the Children of Nature.
That “North Wind” bit is presumably because they anarch0-futurists also gave themselves the even more wonderful name “anarcho-hyperboreans“, people of the mythical land in the distant north:
Long live the international intellectual revolution!
An open road for the Anarcho-Futurists, Anarcho-Hyperboreans, and Neo-Nihilists!
Death to World Civilization!
We’ve just (re-)launched Aleph, the project I’ve been working on with OpenOil. It’s a specialized search engine for oil, gas and mining, aimed at helping activists, journalists and government officials make sense of the torrent of regulatory and financial information that comes out of those industries.
Julien Bach made a beautiful video to explain what’s going on:
Big thanks also to Friedrich, whose work with OCCRP supplied a huge proportion of the underlying code.
I don’t 100% believe this, but it tickles me anyway.
Supposedly, car-based flirting in Iran avoids the (potentially illegal) need to be alone with a member of the opposite sex:
Rules of the game? Pile in a car and head with your same sex possie to one of the city’s flirt strips, cruise up and down until you spot a likely target, being careful to pick a car that’s broadly your car’s equal and then aggressively use tail lights, fog lights and rear windscreen wipers to initiate the courting ritual. A response is equivilent to a pick-up and the cars cruise side by side to arrange later rendezvous through open windows and over the sound of preferred music tastes.
The advanced version involves engineering an accident as an excuse to get contact details.
Downside: it’s only a matter of time until the Pick-Up Artists get hold of this and start systematically rear-ending girls’ cars.
For twenty years, many color laser printers have included a hidden tracking code on each page they print. Made of microscopic yellow dots, the code can reveal to the police the unique identity of your printer.
The EFF and others have reverse engineered a few of these codes, shedding light on how the system works technically.
What they have not explained is how it happened. How do twenty governments and an entire industry collaborate to build a secret tracking system, in the total absence of any public discussion?
This is an attempt to piece together the history of the yellow dots. It’s based almost entirely on government documents — some obtained from the US Federal Reserve by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, others made available by the European Union.
The response to technology is surveillance
It begins in the early 1990s. The central banks of Europe are scared. Technological change is making color printing, once limited to large-scale professional enterprises, accessible to small businesses and even homes. When color printing reaches the masses, it won’t be long until the masses begin printing fake banknotes.
The printer manufacturers are also scared. If their products become tools for counterfeiting, their entire industry might be shut down, or regulated into insignificance.
So they look for a compromise. It turns out, you can have both fancy printers and secure currency. The only cost is the creation of a subtle system of mass surveillance — but if you don’t tell anybody about that, they won’t complain. The yellow dots are born.
To understand the document trail, we’ll need a bit of jargon. On the government side, the Europeans are running the show, through a “Special Study Group” on color copying within the European Banknote Printers Conference. Soon reformulated into the “SSG-2” to accommodate Japan and North America, this will be the clearing-house for negotiations with manufacturers. The industry, being at this point almost entirely Japanese, works through something called the Japan Business Machine Makers Association (JBMA). Non-Japanese manufacturers are also represented here, with Lexmark reportedly joining in 2008. The yellow dot arrangement will be called either BITMAP or the Tracing System.
A “voluntary arrangement”
The JBMA propose a “voluntary arrangement” – though this is clearly the kind of volunteering you do to avoid ever finding out what compulsory looks like. Each manufacturer rigs their copiers and printers to put those microscopic dots onto each page. Every year they send a list of codes to the JBMA, which compiles them for the law enforcement agencies.
This system seems to come into operation in 1993.
The anti-counterfeiters aren’t expected to look at fake banknotes with a magnifying glass. The manufacturers cook up something they call BITMAP – a software package to match the code to the printer. All you need is a standard PC and a scanner. And a floppy disk drive – this piece of secret spy tech comes on floppies as late as 1998. You fire up BITMAP, scan your counterfeit, and it tells you the manufacturer of the machine it was printed on.
Fingering your customers: a free after-sales service
The BITMAP software appears to only tell you the manufacturer. To find out the specific machine, you need to go to the manufacturer. “Copier manufacturers”, according to SSG-2, “will continue to provide assistance in identifying specific copiers at no additional cost”.
So each of the manufacturers is deeply involved in this process through the nineties. Canon, Xerox, Konica — all have a designated contact person, responsible for secretly responding to police requests to identify their customers. BITMAP comes with a list of their names and contact information, one per manufacturer.
Admittedly, not all manufacturers play along with full enthusiasm. By 1997 the SSG-2 was collecting information about which companies were dragging their feet.One set of minutes asks members to “let the SSG-2 Working Group know if they encountered problems with getting information front any individual copier manufacturers”. And the US Secret Service were instructed that “concerns with the response time for providing copier information, should be referred to the JBMA”.
Grumbles aside, the system worked. By 1998, some 23 countries were receiving their BITMAP floppy disks from Japan.
A European model of surveillance
European countries were among the first to push for printer tracking dots, and they have continued to be enthusiastic users of the system. In 2000, Europol reported early work towards euro-centralisation of printer tracing:
Work progressed on the European Union Counterfeit Currency Situation Report, as well as on the bitmap register for the collation of information on counterfeit currency produced by traceable colour copiers.
By 2003 they had persuaded the Council of the European Union to fund a centralised printer-tracing service within Europol:
setting up a BITMAP intelligence centre at Europol. This common database should contain bitmap related information and it could serve as the Bitmap co-ordination centre in the European Union. The database shall contain the relevant (technical) data on decoded bitmap-information, investigative data including personal data of companies and persons related with the bitmap subject. EU Member States are asked to supply, in accordance with their national legislation, all existing Bitmap data to the Bitmap intelligence centre
It’s not clear how fully the Council were informed about what they were agreeing to fund. The document used the full force of bureaucratic vagueness to describe BITMAP, explaining it as being “based on an identification of offset processes that are used, inter alia, for counterfeiting banknotes”.
By 2009, Europol described its work on “centralising and processing” printer-tracking requests:
This service provides requesting countries with swift and relevant
information on equipment being used by counterfeiters. Europol is
also in a position to offer in-house decoding of bitmap as well as
The training took place extensively, with events in Brussels, Lisbon and Romania. Germany’s police forces are apparently Europe’s top experts on printer surveillance. The BKA, the federal police service, was intended to provide advanced (“second level”) training to the rest of Europe.
Europol’s BITMAP services have not been limited to EU member-states. According to experts within the Czech police, Ukraine and Turkey have been among the countries most frequently asking for Europol’s help. Even the Russian police received BITMAP training “supported by instructors from the Europol’s Forgery of Money Unit”
And by this point, Europol’s BTIMAP activities were not limited to cunterfeiting. Although the system had been developed to identify banknotes, there was no technical reason not to use it to trace back any color-printed document to the source. By 2007, Europol were handling more requests relating to documents than to forged Euros. This off-label was never part of the original justification of the tracking-dot system. It’s just a typical example of how surveillance tends to expand within institutions, especially in the absence of any public constraints.
This whole history is an example of what can go wrong when small groups of experts try to solve their own problems, without reference to the wider political context.
A large-scale surveillance system was built as the solution to a technical problem. There was never any public debate, and no evidence of elected officials considering the pros and cons of the system. Senior officials were given vague descriptions of what was being developed, without enough information for them to understand its dangers.
Police and central banks, governments and manufacturers, all worked together across the world and over two decades — but at no point did anybody consider asking the public whether they wanted their printers monitored.
Some of the more important documents on the printer tracking system are:
Metal is the true cultural heritage of Scandinavia. Proof is the Arab merchant who visited 10th century Denmark and reported:
“Never before I have heard uglier songs than those of the Vikings in Slesvig (in Denmark). The growling sound coming from their throats reminds me of dogs howling, only more untamed.”
[This is the immediate source, though it seems to be one of those too-good-to-be-true quotations that floats round online]
Reminiscences of New York in the 70s, and how it came to be that way. Broke, with the Federal government out to destroy it, and where the police were handing out leaflets entitled “Welcome to Fear City“:
One consequence of New York’s forty-year transition from junkie to preppy overachiever is that our stereotypes are out of date. Hence the continual problems for location scout Nick Carr — directors want to film in the rough parts of New York, but there aren’t any left
The designer was undeterred. “You know what I mean – the bad neighbourhoods! Burning barrels! Trash everywhere! Homeless people in the street! Where do we find it?”
That’s when I realised we were looking for something that only exists in the movies.
I’m enough of a FOI nerd to occasionally delve into the collection of released information at What Do They Know. Here are a few that caught my eye from the MoD:
- Of the UK military trainers in Iraq, none speak Arabic or Kurdish
- The Minister of Defense can classify civilian aircraft as military. He apparently has not done so; this request would be worth repeating in a few years.
- Service personnel AWOL — overwhelmingly an army issue, with spikes in 2007 and 2010.
- List of MoD InfoSec policies
- Gulf war veterans furious that the drugs they were given were ‘voluntary’
- UK military assistance to Ukraine. Helmets, goggles, first aid kits and laptops
- The MOD has only recorded 6 cases of sexual harrassment in the last 5 years. This seems to be a case where reprhrasing a question can have a different result — there were at least 253 reports of rape and sexual assault in the 4 years to 2013
Wikipedia’s article on In Rem Jurisdiction is a thing of beauty. It’s about the situation where the defendant in a court case is an object rather than a person. Some of the case names are poetically bizarre:
- United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins
- United States v. Thirty-seven Photographs, one of many obscenity cases prosecuted in this way
- United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola, one of my favourites. The prosecutor tried to argue that Coca-cola was ‘poisonous or deleterious’ because of the added caffeine, and that it was misbrande because it didn’t contain cocaine. This case is likely part of the reason that coke still includes coca leaf extract, to avoid charges of misbranding
- United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, in which the US tried to seize birth control from the mail on the grounds of it being “obscene matter“
- United States v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls
Recently I realised how far Trotskyism has fallen. Two smart, educated companions failed to associate an ice-pick with Leon Trotsky. Instead, they associated the ice-pick with Basic Instinct.
Comrades, not only have Trots been obliterated, but the world has forgotten to associate mountaineering tools with a thousand tasteless Stalinist jokes.
Unfortunately, sexy Hollywood homicide isn’t a direct replacement for communist infighting. Sharon Stone, it turns out, used the wrong kind of icepick. It turns out that fancy-pants Americans don’t even call an ice-pick an ice-pick, lest they confuse it wih a silly thing for cutting ice.
Icepick, Trotsky version
Icepick, Basic Instinct version
This other icepick, though, did at least lead to me reading some shudder-inducing articles about the icepick lobotomy. The name alone makes it sound horrific, but the reality was even worse:
transorbital lobotomy involved taking a kitchen ice pick, later refined into a more proficient instrument called a leucotome, and hammering it through the thin layer of skull in the corner of each eye socket. The pick would then be scrambled from side to side in order to damage the frontal lobe. The process took about 10 minutes and could be performed anywhere, without the assistance of a surgeon.
Over the years, Freeman developed a reckless enthusiasm for the operation, driving several thousand miles across the country to carry out demonstrations at asylums and hospitals. An instinctive showman, he sometimes ice-picked both eye sockets simultaneously, one with each hand. He had a buccaneering disregard for the usual medical formalities – he chewed gum while he operated and displayed impatience with what he called ‘all that germ crap’, routinely failing to sterilise his hands or wear rubber gloves. Despite a 14 per cent fatality rate, Freeman performed 3,439 lobotomies in his lifetime.
The establishment in Britain shows no signs of dying out. Here is an FT article, written by an Oxbridge-educated man, about how Oxbridge-educated men find themselves in positions of power without really needing to exert themselves or show signs of brilliance:
My caste produces the opinions that most British people are expected to swallow. However, the one topic we seldom discuss honestly is our own rule. So let me try to describe how it looks from up here.
We didn’t have to work very hard to get here. Luckily, the British establishment doesn’t demand workaholism, except for a few months around exams. The gentleman dilettante is still honoured (see David Cameron).
Jon Ronson has made a career from taking important topics, and finding the ridiculous element within them. It works pretty well for getting us to pay attention to what he has to say — I certainly look forward to reading his books, in a way I wouldn’t for a drier treatment of the same topic.
In the past he’s looked at extremists, psycopaths and conspiracy heorists. Now he’s looking at online shamings — at how twitter users form into global mobs, piling to humiliate anybody who transgresses the social order.
We are living through “a great renaissance of public shaming“, Ronson argues. We have formed ourselves into a new global public, and there is nothing we like more than humiliating people:
After a while it wasn’t just transgressions we were keenly watchful for. It was misspeakings. Fury at the terribleness of other people had started to consume us a lot. And the rage that swirled around seemed increasingly in disproportion to whatever stupid thing some celebrity had said. It felt different to satire or journalism or criticism. It felt like punishment. In fact it felt weird and empty when there wasn’t anyone to be furious about. The days between shamings felt like days picking fingernails, treading water.
Ronson, with his uncanny ability to persuade anybody to talk to him, manages to arrange interviews with many victims of online shaming. There are Lindsey Stone and Justine Sacco, who achieved online ignominy by tweeting off-colour jokes about veterans and AIDS victims. Or Jonah Lehrer and Mike Daisey, who falsified quotations for print and radio respectively. Or Max Mosley, whose sin was to enjoy S&M while being the son of nazi sympathisers.
Ronson’s light touch doesn’t stop this being an entirely damning attack on a brutal new culture. He puts it in the historical context of justice systems moving away from shaming as being too brutal, even in comparison with torture or capital punishment. “ignominy [being] universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death“, wrote one of the founding fathers, “it would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment”
If public punishments used to contain some nod towards justice, the new mob is startling in its obliviousness. When Ronson talks to the perpetrators of public shaming, they seem baffled by the idea that their targets could be seriously hurt by it. They assume that they are ‘punching up’ against victims powerful enough to shrug it off.
The victims, though, seem near-uniformly broken. Months after whatever outbreak of online hatred brought them down, their lives are still shaped by it. Unemployed, plagued by depression and self-loathing, they are ceaselessly reminded of whatever minor infraction they committed. None of Ronsons interviewees have killed themselves, but you feel that’s mostly a matter of luck.
Ronson points out that this shaming is inherently a conservative force. It didn’t seem that way at first, because the early adopters tended to be liberal. As the attacked homophobes and jumped on the cruelty of the Daily Mail, it was possible to believe that the twitter mob would be a force for good.
But now that everybody uses social media, online shaming will simply replicate the views of society. Worse, it will emphasise the conservative tendencies, because the nature of the shaming process is to punish people who are different:
We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.
‘Look!’ we’re saying. ‘WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!’
We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.